Forget Tiger Woods and his remarkable victory at the Masters in April. The greatest comeback in golf that I know of is Dennis Walters who went from promising young golfer one day to a paraplegic the next. On Monday, at the Sunset Center, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus introduced him as he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame along with Retief Goosen, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne, and the late Peggy Kirk Bell.
Walters, 69, is one of golf’s most inspirational figures, and if you’ve never seen his one-man show, you’re missing out. He’s got one club made from a fishing rod, one made from an old crutch, one that’s an actual radiator hose, and another made from a mobile phone. He hits a golf ball off a watch and balances an egg on a ball and then hits the ball without breaking the egg. He’s one of golf’s most entertaining trick-shot artists.
Yet his most impressive act during the Induction Ceremony was seeing Walters rise from his wheelchair and prop himself up onto crutches to make his speech.
Nearly 45 years ago, on July 21, 1974, Walters was driving a cart down a gravel path. He went too fast as he made a turn and was thrown from the cart, which flipped onto him, severing his spine. He couldn’t feel his legs when he woke up in a hospital bed and knew his dream of playing on the PGA Tour was over. He has been paralysed from the waist down since that day. Imagine having your life turned upside down at age 24. One time, he took his fist and punched a hole right through the wall of his parents’ brand-new condo.
“Virtually every day there were times when I wished I could have died,” he said.
Then, he received a letter in the mail from Ben Hogan, who had suffered his own life-threatening injuries, and his support provided a psychological lift. Walters has turned the tragedy of his golf-cart accident into a personal mission to teach golf and life lessons to a worldwide audience.
It all began in 1976, when Walters had an epiphany while on a swivelling bar stool in Florida. If a swivelling seat could be built into the side of a cart, maybe he really could hit balls again. His father, Bucky, a World War II veteran, got it built and Walters learned to hit with extra long clubs.
“My dad would help me get dressed. I could do it myself but he’d say if I help you, you’ll have more energy to practice later,” Walters said.
“My dad conservatively teed up over one million golf balls for me. Never once did he say: ‘It’s late, that’s enough, let’s go.’ It would be dark out and he’d say: ‘Do you wanna hit another one, champ?’”
Together, they began doing exhibitions known as “Golf’s Most Inspiring Hour”. His father travelled with him for 17 years, driving a van with a trailer carrying his specially-designed cart. Sister Barbara Herman promoted and booked the exhibitions and served as his agent and best friend. Walters has travelled more than three million miles to perform more than 3,000 exhibitions for youngsters, the military, youth development group The First Tee, and anyone willing to let him share his story. He was Tiger Woods’ opening act when he did junior clinics early in his career. (“Can you believe I’m in the Hall of Fame before Tiger Woods?” Walters cracked.) Inspiration and encouragement are the themes of his show. Incorporated into his speech is something Walters calls “the Six P’s in the Pod of Success.” They are:
Walters has spent the last four decades showing others by his own personal example that it is always possible to follow your dreams.
“When I was laying in a hospital bed, I said: ‘What could I possibly accomplish?’ I didn’t think I could do anything,” he said. “When I did get out of that bed, I made up my mind that I was never going to give up and I was going to figure out a way to play golf. I did it. Here I am.”
Walters has won every significant award in golf, the Ben Hogan Award for Greatest Comeback in 1978; PGA Distinguished Service Award in 2008; Bob Jones Award from the USGA in 2018; and now a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Only one other, Patty Berg, has won those big four. Nicklaus and Gary Player, two of his supporters for his Hall of Fame candidacy, told him of his selection in the Lifetime Achievement category.
“I can’t walk, but when I got that call, I felt like I could fly,” Walters said.
He adopted a phrase often used by his father: “I cannot spell ‘can’t’.” His entire life has been a victory for those he has inspired and for himself, for he never gave up hope.
“In my show, I talk about dreams,” Walters said. “A real dream to me is not something you have at night.